There's been a lot of chatter in the last few days regarding our local NFL franchise possibly moving back to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Stadium. I have struggled with creating a measured response to the proposal. Maybe it would be good if they agreed to build a stadium integrated into the urban fabric? Maybe the plan should go ahead if we, as a city, take a firm but conciliatory stand on the offensive name? Maybe things would work if we use a possible stadium deal to spur continued development and clean-up of the Anacostia River?
I made it about two paragraphs in. It didn't work. I can't see a scenario where a NFL Stadium on that site is a good idea. Not when the site could be so much more.
Let's, for a moment, leave aside the offensive name. Let's pretend this is a legitimate consideration of relocating and not a cynical attempt to spark a bidding war with our Virginia and Maryland neighbors. Let's even give Mr. Snyder, the owner, one huge heck of a benefit of the doubt and assume a new RFK plan includes private financing for the stadium. Even assuming all that, this bid would remain a bad idea.
The problem with this plan is that legacy politicians and sports executives look at this large swath of land along the banks of the Anacostia and see… nothing. They see empty, useless land that just happens to have excellent metro and road links. Is there truly no better use of this real estate than to plop a giant stadium on it? What else would we do with it?
It's a fundamental failure of imagination. We're facing a real problem –and the problem isn't football fans having to trek out to Landover a few times a year. It's this: we're growing by over a thousand residents A MONTH. We don't want to build up, we don't want to disturb our existing neighborhoods, and we don't want to displace long-term residents. I'll be the first to admit that the issue is more complex than a simple supply and demand curve, but we can't just ignore the iron-clad law of supply and demand. Simply put, we need more city. We need it a lot more than we need easy access to a football team. And we don't just need housing. We also need parks, schools, cultural amenities and other infrastructure that makes a city great.
Let's build more. There is, in my opinion, a great jumping-off point for a real discussion of this site: the National Capital Planning Commission 2006 RFK Stadium Site Redevelopment Study (.pdf). It calls for setting aside space for recreational facilities, a museum, a grand monument, and a significant amount of mixed-use development. I might perhaps push for a bit more housing to be incorporated into the plan. However, if it were to be adopted tomorrow, I think the NCPC plan would be a tremendous asset to my neighborhood, the city of Washington, and yes, the nation.
Why the nation? Because this IS federal land. It's owned by the National Park Service and therefore held in trust for the American people. While I live only a few hundred yards from the site, I recognize that this can and should accommodate the need for more space for monuments and museums. The Mall is largely filled. Hosting the next Smithsonian site would be a great draw to the eastern end of Capitol Hill.
There are 190 acres to use here. We can accommodate the federal interest, tie Capitol Hill together with the Anacostia river and with neighborhoods east of the river. We can also expand the housing supply with room to spare. There's just one little problem: we're going to need an act of Congress to make this happen, or probably a few before we're done.
We're also going to need someone in Congress to make this happen. We need creative and energetic leadership. Otherwise, we'll end up with exactly what we have now: a decaying stadium and acres and acres of disused parking lots.